Bullies, beasts and blood-soaked bathrooms: Stephen King and periods

Katie Goh /
Oct 20, 2017 / Film & TV

A visit from Aunt Flow, the red tide, on the rag, shark week, Time-Of-The-Month, monthly visitor, the painters are in, the curse: as The Independent found, there are literally thousands of euphemisms for menstruation.

In the 1970s, Germaine Greer noted that society has a Menstruation Etiquette: despite being an every-month, ordinary bodily function for many people, menstruation remains hidden behind layers of euphemisms, represented as blue liquid in glossy tampon adverts, and hidden away even in our own homes. Nearly fifty years on from the publication of Greer’s The Female Eunuch, there remains a prejudice against periods. Categorised as a “luxury good,” sanitary products have a 5% tax in the UK, known as the tampon tax. Earlier in March, a school in Leeds made headlines when teachers noticed that students were missing school because they couldn’t afford to buy sanitary products. The Scottish government recently announced a plan to tackle period poverty by providing free access to tampons and pads. If the plans proceed, it would make Scotland the first country to provide universally free sanitary products.

While public sentiment about menstruation is slowly progressing forward due to the work of feminist politicians and charities, there remains a culture of shame surrounding periods. This can be largely attributed to a patriarchal society’s shaming of anything associated with female bodies. Speaking to The London Review of Books, a teen magazine editor reported that the post she received for her “Teen Embarrassment” column was mostly from young girls about menstruation: “[t]he embarrassing incident need not involve leaks or stains: it is enough that someone, especially a boy, knows that you’re having your period.”

The anxieties, humiliation, and guilt surrounding puberty and teenage bodies has long been a topic for writers. Stephen King is perhaps the most famous chronicler of the painful transition from childhood to adulthood in small-town America. While more focus has been given to his stories of boyhood, such as Stand By Me, The Shining, and ‘Salem’s Lot, King’s narratives about teenage girls offer a female-centric perspective on the repressed anxieties of adolescence.

King’s first novel, Carrie (1974), is perhaps the best known depiction of menstruation in popular culture. In the novel, Carrie is a social misfit, bullied in school and at home. Raised by her abusive and religiously fanatic mother, Carrie has not been taught about puberty or menstruation. When she gets her first period in the school’s communal shower, she believes she is bleeding to death:

“‘For God’s sake, Carrie, you got your period! … Clean yourself up!’ Carrie backed into the side of one of the four large shower compartments and slowly collapsed into a sitting position […] her eyes rolled with wet whiteness, like the eyes of a hog in a slaughtering pen.”

In the 1976 film adaptation, Carrie staggers out of the shower mist with bloody hands reaching for her classmates. “Plug it up,” the girls chant as they throw tampons and pads at her. Carrie is traumatised from her first experience of menstruation and is made to feel ashamed by her peers, who mock her inexperience, and by her mother, who believes that menstruation is God’s punishment for Eve’s sinful descendants.

In her 1980 text, Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva explores the relationship we have with our bodies. Bodily fluids, such as urine, menstrual blood, vomit, and excretion are considered as part of our bodies when they are internal, yet, when they pass through the body’s boundary, they are perceived as alien and repulsive. Kristeva calls this feeling of horror ‘abjection’, and writes that it occurs because our sense of self is threatened when the boundary between internal and external is disrupted: “the ego threatened by the non-ego, society threatened by its outside, life by death.” Gendered as feminine, and associated with chaotic instability and uncontrollable leakiness, menstruation is the epitome of abjection.

Carrie’s relationship to her menstruating body is one of abject horror. Her period begins at the same time as her telekinesis powers. The novel ends with the infamous prom scene, where a bucket of pigs’ blood is poured over Carrie in front of her peers. Carrie’s deepest shame – the “secretness of blood” – is exposed on stage triggering her telekinesis powers. Invoking the motif of the monstrous female in Gothic fiction, Carrie changes from victim to monster as she uses what she perceives as her liability – the inability to control her body – as a weapon.

Bullies, beasts and blood-soaked bathrooms: Stephen King and periods

Carrie has been a subject of feminist debate since its publication. While King realistically depicts society’s culture of shame that surrounds the female body, Carrie’s menstruation remains a curse. Unable to control her body, Carrie is eventually destroyed by it and ends up dead. The novel’s portrayal of the frightening and unstable power of the female body plays into the trope of the feminine mystique: the idea that menstruation is something mysterious, related to Mother Nature or the moon, rather than simply being another bodily function. In Carrie, menstruation remains part of the story’s abject horror as the novel ends with Carrie as the bloody, violent monster.

King’s latter novel, It (1986), similarly explores how our anxieties and secrets change as we age. Each member of the self-proclaimed Losers’ Club is haunted by a childhood trauma which manifests as the eponymous monster, a shape-shifting being that usually takes the form of a clown. For Bill, It’s his lost brother; for Eddie, a hypochondriac, It’s an infectious zombie; for Mike, It’s his parents’ death in a fire; and for Beverly, the group’s only girl, it’s her body.

In the 2017 adaption of It, we first meet Beverly in a bathroom stall where, in an homage to Carrie, school bullies pour a bin over her head. The film repeatedly places Beverly in locked bathrooms, where she has her first encounter with It. After hearing voices speaking to her through the drain, blood spurts out of the sink. A call-back to Kubrick’s The Shining, blood covers the room, soaking Beverly, the walls, tiles, and mirrors. Notably, this is the only extreme use of hyperbolic bloody gore in the film. An obvious metaphor for her period, uncontrollable blood is Beverly’s greatest fear, as, in a previous scene, we see her anxiously buying tampons.

Readers of It will know that extent to which Beverly’s body is a focus in the original novel’s infamous sewer orgy scene. After they escape the tunnels, each of the boys has sex with Beverly, pinpointing the moment when they move from boyhood to manhood. It’s hard to see Beverly has anything other than a catalyst for the boys becoming men: they are changed by the sex, she is not. Commenting on the novel in 2013, King acknowledged that “[t]imes have changed since I wrote that scene and there is now more sensitivity to those issues.”

Although the 2017 adaptation omits the novel’s orgy scene, there remains a gender divide in the film’s depiction of adolescence. While It explores each of the children’s fears of growing older, the film repeatedly sexualises Beverly’s body from a male perspective. We see her hiding tampons from the boys, offering her sexuality as a decoy by flirting with a man, abused by her father, gazed at by the boys while she sunbathes in her underwear, and brought back to life with a kiss.

In the film, bodies and blood symbolise a bond between the children.  It is when Beverly shows the boys the blood soaked bathroom that they make a connection between their horrifying visions and the towns’ deaths. In a moment of solidarity, the boys help Beverly clean up the blood. It’s an explicit metaphor for Beverly’s menstruation, having the boys help clean up the blood positions them as her allies. Rather than hiding her period from them, as she does in the earlier scene when she buys tampons, by showing the boys the blood and allowing them to help her, Beverly’s fears are eased. Whereas Carrie is shamed into having to deal with her menstruation fears alone, Beverly is supported by her friends.

While It retains much of the original novel’s problematic gender politics, the 2017 film also offers a surprisingly feminist message: that the culture of shame surrounding menstruation can be dismantled by opening up about it and by sharing it. The film’s message suggests that if we repress our anxieties, they will explode and, like Carrie, cause the most damage to ourselves.

Bullies, beasts and blood-soaked bathrooms: Stephen King and periods

Words by Katie Goh

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